Jack Welch, the US management genius, argued that teams operated most effectively when employees had the right skills and fitted the company's culture. One without the other was worse than useless.
In the debate about the quality of the civil service, many Conservative ministers blame its culture; its reluctance to change, its lack of a can-do mentality and its failure to appreciate what is required to get the British economy moving.
That most influential of establishment trade unions, the Association of Recently-Retired Cabinet Secretaries (ARRCS), hit back by accusing the politicians of lowering morale by undermining the workers. Jack Welch, for more than a decade CEO and chairman of General Electric (employees: 100,000), would be horrified at the lack of leadership of all of them.
In analysing this issue, let's set on one-side the traditional right-wing assumption that civil servants are Tory-hating Guardian-reading liberals. Yes there are resistance movements - notably in the Department for Education. But for the most part officials want to do a good job for the government of the day. What self-respecting professional employee wouldn't? They are just badly led and badly motivated.
In my view the central problem lies in the fact that ministers are trying to get civil servants to do a job that the vast majority don't have the skills to do.
Why should we expect a career civil servant to manage a £500 million IT project - regardless of his or her Sunninghill training?
Should we really expect a career diplomat (History; Cantab) to convert to export sales in the BRICs - as William Hague is insisting?
How realistic is it to expect officials to appreciate the need for supply side reforms for business if they have never felt the discipline of a P&L or the wrath of a disappointed shareholder? Steve Hilton is now telling students at Stanford's Hoover Institution, no less, of his frustration with civil service attempts to block the Beecroft reforms and other schemes to kick-start the economy.
The government is trying to fill the skills gap by promoting mandarins with private sector backgrounds - the new permanent secretary at DECC spent ten years at Deutsche Bank. Or bring in ministers with business backgrounds such as Paul Deighton from LOCOG (ex-Goldman) and John Nash from Sovereign Capital.
While welcome, this does not address the systemic problem and imported business people get famously frustrated by the bureaucracy. They and others then blame the 'culture' - which only adds to the resentment.
Here are some ideas for making the civil service more responsive to the needs of the UK economy:
1. Ministers should stop the blame game and set three clear objectives for Whitehall - one of which is 'getting the UK economy moving'
2. Civil servants themselves should re-define their key value set - coupling a traditional public sector ethos with a commitment to secure VFM for the taxpayer
3. Promotion to grade 3 in the civil service should be impossible without having spent at least one year of your career in the private sector
4. No civil servant should be responsible for a budget of more than £10m of public money without being a grade 3 equivalent or above
5. Every Permanent Secretary should simultaneously be made to sit as a non-executive director of a FTSE 250 company
6. The civil service training budget should be doubled for the next two years.
7. Secondments - from business to Whitehall and visa-versa - should be commonplace and the usual rules on public sector salary limits should be suspended to make it happen
8. The Institute for Government should swap 20% of its membership with the Institute of Directors for a 12 months trial period
9. Every civil servant should get a free subscription to the Economist - they can tuck it inside their Guardian if they need to
10. There should be a 'clear the air' summit between ministers and senior civil servants to acknowledge that both sides need to improve their management and leadership skills
Jack Welch also believed that while you could give an employee new skills through training, if they didn't fit the company culture, they should leave the organisation. When a new set of values is agreed, those civil servants who do not respect them should be encouraged to seek employment elsewhere. Only then will we see the change.
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